With the Miami Marlins current manager search, and all the analysis surrounding it, you’ve probably heard the phrase “forward thinking” attached to desirable candidates.
But what does that actually mean?
How would a team with a forward thinking manager play differently than one with a traditionalist? The biggest difference would be in the way the bullpen was organized.
Traditionally, each member of a bullpen is given a strictly defined role based on how much the manager trusts them. These roles then correspond, again strictly, to the inning in which each pitcher is used. Generally speaking the later the inning the more trust a manager has in the guy. This is epitomized by the famous save rule, which states that a team’s closer (the best arm in the bullpen) should only be used in the 9th inning of a close game and to use him any other way would be a waste.
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The logic here is that the later innings naturally bear more leverage on the outcome of the game than earlier ones. The problem is that’s not always the case.
A forward thinking manager would make pitching changes in a significantly different manner. He would still identify which relievers he most trusted; however, their usage would be dictated by the leverage of the situation, not the current inning. This might mean bringing his closer in to face the heart of the order during the 7th inning, while allowing a lesser arm to close out the game.
Still too abstract? Well luckily enough a real life example of this took place on Saturday during the Miami Marlins 5-2 loss to the Washington Nationals.
If you’ve never seen one of these before it’s fairly simple. The closer the line gets to either the top or bottom of the chart the more likely the corresponding team is to win. Obviously the game started out well for the Fish, then went disastrously wrong in the bottom of the fifth and never recovered after that. But what interested me was the decision Matt Williams made to hold the lead once his team had taken it.
Jonathan Papelbon is the Nationals closer. Regardless of anything else, this means that he’s the man they want to have the ball when the game is on the line. For Williams, possibly the most thoroughly traditional manager in the league, this means the 9th inning.
Looking back at the graph, the line comes extremely close to the top right before the ninth inning begins. That position indicates a Win expectancy of 97.2 %, making it the half inning with the least leverage in which the Marlins would bat.
Why so low?
Well the three batters Papelbon was set to face were J.T. Realmuto, Miguel Rojas, and Casey McGehee batting for the pitcher, 7, 8, and 9 respectively, easily the least dangerous hitters in the lineup. As used Papelbon’s Win Percentage adjustment was just 0.28%, the lowest of any Nats hurler not named Sammy Solis. Clearly, the ‘traditional way’ led to a sub-optimal use of Papelbon.
In stark contrast, a forward thinking manager would likely have used his best reliever in the 7th inning. The score was still very tight, only 3-2 at that point, and the top of the order was due up for the Marlins.
Dee Gordon and Ichiro Suzuki, lefties with reverse splits, were a perfect match up for the right-handed Papelbon. By making this move, Felipe Rivero could have been saved to face Christian Yelich, Justin Bour, and Derek Dietrich in the 8th, instead of having to turn to the shaky Solis. And Blake Treinen could perform mop up duties on the aforementioned bottom three.
This is simply an objectively better set of match ups. It may not have affected the result of this game, but Williams’ lack of creativity in managing his bullpen could be a big part of the failure that the 2015 Nationals campaign.
The Marlins need a new manager, and if against all odds they turn out to hire a forward thinking one, creative bullpen management is one of the ways he could help us win next year.
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